The term 501(c)(3) is commonly used to refer to a non-profit organization. But what, exactly, is a 501(c)(3)? This goal of this post is to explain what this term means, and what types of organizations have 501(c)(3) status.
501(c)(3) is not actually a term that describes an entity itself, but instead describes its status (a non-profit corporation can’t technically BE a 501(c)(3), but it can have 501(c)(3) status). The term 501(c)(3) refers to the provision in the United States Code (federal law) that grants certain entities an exemption from paying federal income tax. Section 501(c)(3) is a specific part of Section 501. Section 501, appropriately captioned “Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc.,” provides, with detail, what entities are exempt from paying federal income tax. Here is a link to a website that displays the actual language of Section 501 if you are interested in reading it https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/501.
Section 501, as a whole, includes the provisions allowing the exemption. The wording of the section is broken down into subsections, paragraphs, subparagraphs, etc. In the term 501(c)(3), 501 is the section, (c) is the subsection, and (3) is the paragraph. Subsection (c) provides a specific list of what entities are allowed the exemption, each one explained in a separate paragraph. There are 29 categories of entities (and thus 29 paragraphs) listed under Subsection (c) that are allowed the exemption; Paragraph (3) is just one of those 29.
Although there are 29 categories, many non-profit organizations fall under the category in Paragraph 501(c)(3), which provides that the following entities are exempt, “Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes…” The explanation of entities included in this paragraph continues, but many non-profit corporations fall under the “charitable” portion of this paragraph. Thus, if you are a charitable non-profit corporation, you are exempt from having to pay federal income tax pursuant to paragraph 501(c)(3).
Simply stating that a non-profit corporation’s activities are charitable, though, isn’t enough to qualify for this tax exemption. To be exempt under this provision, your activities must meet the federal government’s definition of “charitable.” To learn about what activities are considered “charitable” check back for the next article in this series.